Saturday, February 16, 2008

Without a Trace of Doubt in My Mind

Rereading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven (which is fascinating and you should read it right now—seriously, I don't know why you're still sitting here) a couple of weeks ago, I started thinking about Joseph Smith and the concept of belief. I'm a deeply secular person, as I've been for most of my life (the exception being until I was around eight, when my family had a game known as "What Does Your God Look Like Today?"), who, while she still has a lot of faith, has trouble subscribing to any of the ideas that drive organized religion. From this deeply secular perspective, it's easy for me to feel that Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, was an incredibly charismatic, untreated schizophrenic. He was visited by an angel who told him that he could find golden plates on which were inscribed the story that became The Book of Mormon; once translated (which translation Joseph Smith conducted by burying his face in a hat that contained a "peep stone" and using spectacles made of rocks provided him by the Angel Moroni) and transcribed by his wife and members of his community, Smith returned the plates to the angel, and thus the most successful homegrown American religion was born. In admiring Krakauer's skill at telling such stories as the one above without irony, anger or judgment, though, it occurred to me that it is entirely historically irrelevant whether or not Joseph Smith was schizophrenic.

As someone who tends to set a lot of store by facts, that notion interests me. The historical significance of Joseph Smith is that he singlehandedly created a religion—okay, not "singlehandedly" per se, as very little happens that way, but certainly he was the visionary and nothing would ever have happened without him—that has endured and strengthened over the last one hundred and eighty-odd years, with an enduring mythology that speaks deeply to more than ten million people, and in his lifetime caused enough controversy and reaction that he was thrown from a window by an angry mob before he was forty. From that man came a complex, developed American religion of a scale we as a nation hadn't seen before or since—and I want to debate whether he was schizophrenic, whether it is indeed possible to have an angel appear before you and offer golden plates, whether peep stones in fact translate angelic runes? Seriously.

I have, as I've mentioned before, a great deal of faith in the power of belief. It sounds tautological; it might be. But if Joseph Smith's schizophrenia or lack thereof is historically irrelevant, by the same token the historical truth behind any religion, from the coat of many colors to the crucifixion to the angel Moroni, is irrelevant. Faith, as I see it, is itself the basis for power—all kinds, including staying power.

Recently I had a conversation with an artistic collaborator whose views differ drastically from my own. He once considered himself a homosexual, but has since come to believe that his behavior was not sanctioned by God, and he sought forgiveness through an organization called Love in Action. I knew him when he called himself homosexual (in college), fell out of touch with him for a while and heard only secondhand information about his experiences, and then a couple of years ago we got back into contact through theatrical interests. (We're currently writing a musical together.) The first couple of times that the differences in our beliefs came up, I told him, honestly, that I wanted to have the conversation with him about he he came to be where he is, but I could not have it casually. At his insistence, we came to it a couple of weeks ago.

Based on my collaborator's time with Love in Action and on his own long-held (though lapsed during much of the period when he believed himself to be gay) religious/spiritual beliefs, he feels that homosexual behavior is destructive to anyone who engages in it, that the only sex acceptable in the eyes of God is heterosexual monogamous marital sex, that homosexuality is not something born into people but rather a sinful impulse born of a lack of masculine love or support in childhood; the impulse is akin to, say, the urge to shoplift, in that it cannot be seen as unreasonable or wrong to have the impulse, but it is wrong, an act against God, to act on it. If we are all listening carefully, according to this belief system, when engaging in a sinful sexual behavior we will hear the voice of the Holy Spirit, encouraging us to desist. It's the refusal to listen to this voice which causes so much anxiety, neurosis, psychological damage in contemporary homosexual communities; men suffer more from this than women because women are by nature more relationship-oriented, but anybody who persists in this sinful behavior is damaging themselves spiritually, which seems to basically equate to psychologically.

Regular readers of this blog obviously know how inimical this is to my beliefs. (While I urge discussion and debate, I also request that it be done respectfully, as my artistic collaborator is himself a sometime reader.) It was one of the more difficult conversations I've ever engaged in. At the end of its first segment, where he was much more the talker and I much more the listener (he, after all, has had the opportunity to spend some time living in the world I now inhabit, whereas in my liberal urban upbringing and young adulthood I've barely touched upon such a community as his), he asked me what I thought about it all. There were a lot of ways I could've chosen to be provocative at this point, and I admit I did choose a couple of them (I asked his opinion on evolution, for example), but the overarching conclusion, which I shared, was the interesting fact that, even as we are going to continue to work together and have great respect for one another as artists, we each have a deeply held belief system allowing us to completely dismiss the other as a person, and we're going to continue holding those beliefs. I'm interested in women because I have not listened sufficiently closely to the voice of the Holy Spirit continually endeavoring to speak to me; he's so in need of a religious community's approval that he's denying his true nature and desires and can't *really* be happy. That's only slightly oversimplified.

I guess my question, then, is what is historically relevant here? Not that I'm expecting my collaborator or myself to have any major-league historical significance, but can I possibly make this a question of who is right? He and I certainly disagree about which of our perspectives is leading the public opinion polls in America at this point (each thinks the other's, though I can understand where he's coming from), but could we ever win a debate about who's right, any more than we could win a debate about Joseph Smith's mental illness? It only works if you believe in mental illness.

What does that say? It says we can't run a world without belief, but that the world isn't run on truth, simply on belief in truth. That doesn't dismiss objective reality, I don't think, it just somewhat diminishes its relevance.

I want to emphasize, too, that when I say belief I'm not limiting it to religion; as I said above, my beliefs are as fully developed as my artistic partner's. My extremely secular father, visiting me in Chicago about a month ago, was musing on the difficulty of moral development in an ever more secular world, and remarking that among contemporary secular young people my sister and I seem to have managed to develop a working moral operating system (hereinafter referred to as MOS). I will never be swayed to believing that one pair or group of people's mutual and supportive love is inherently better or worse than another's. Should it, indeed, turn out that I enter an afterlife where God Hates Fags (man, this post contains a lot of links to things I vociferously disagree with and find really upsetting—still worth knowing and acknowledging they're in the world, though), that would be unfortunate, but to my mind it would mean that I have a point of contention with God; I still cannot convince myself that my system's inferior, that the world wouldn't be a better place if people followed a system of acceptance than the system Love in Action, or other similar evangelical organizations, preach(es). That assumption may be in error, but I feel close enough to the logic that brought me there that I am sticking to it. I feel it so deeply that, even if I can follow the logics that bring people to a different conclusion, I'm confident it's True—there are many aspects of my beliefs that could ultimately be changed by argument or experience, and I would not list this as one of them. Other people whose beliefs are inimical to mine feel exactly the same. How do we make sustainable communities and worlds out of that?


At 5:09 PM, Blogger tyromaven said...

Of the counter-arguments to homosexuality, the one you describe here is among the more humane and accepting--there are plenty of people who might not give room for the difference between what we consider and what we act on. I appreciate that nuance, and I think this argument, while I disagree, also speaks some truths.

To wit:
Romance, lust, love, partnership are among the most psychologically revealing activities we engage in. What we look for in our loves, our partners, is a tangled (or at least many-layered) thing that involves our past, our hopes, our fears, our personal self-image. And it is true that on all kinds of levels, we're all working some stuff out through our loves. Given that, it makes sense that people with complicated gender experiences are working that out in the context of romantic relationships.

The slippery part is saying that this gender history is the only reason that people come to a [homosexual, transgender, post-human, other transgressive] relationship. People in heterosexual relationships are also working out hella gender histories, parental issues, societal norms, personal esteem issues.

Which gets me back around to one of your points of this post: just because something's true doesn't make it relevant, causal, or the only factor to be considered.

Let's talk about faith sometime soon. I find myself talking about it a lot more often lately, with a deep appreciation.

cheers dear, dancing soon.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Lawrence said...

well now gemma

this may just be *the* post, don'tcha know

you know, i have to disagree with you when you say "we each have a deeply held belief system allowing us to completely dismiss the other as a person". well, i obviously still know next to nothing about his belief system, but at least i don't believe that *your* belief system is going to let you completely dismiss him as a person, i mean, you're clearly not dismissing him as a person in this post, and it certainly seems to me that it's a big part of your morals that you make sure you *don't*....

(also, i refuse to believe (for now, at least!) -- i just won't allow myself to believe it, you see -- that you can isolate "as an artist" from "as a person". i mean, yes, i've come to realize over the years that art, even great art, doesn't arise nearly so much as a product of someone's personality as i, for one, would have wished for... but still, my (emergent) god, as a representative of the genus "person" you know i can't stand to see us belittled so!)

... so now here begins the phase where i start to bring up my own psychological rantings and musings, once again:

... so here's what i think is the key, then. how it seems to me really is, "belief" can only take us so far -- it can only touch the universe so much -- it can never actually encompass the universe any one of us sees. so like, however much he or you might feel justified in belittling the other, it seems like you won't let yourselves do it, anyway. because, no one's ever really totally serious about their beliefs, and that, finally, is a really good thing; because most of the time, it seems, one of the most immediate (if not always, ultimately, well-considered, even by the belief system itself) consequences of beliefs, is, to reject people. in my own life, i can look back and definitely remember using "belief" as an excuse to myself why i simply would *not* get along with certain people. and opposed to belief, i guess, is reaction, which i think can't help but be more complex -- you *know* that this guy is someone you can work with, because of something other than your beliefs. but, i would not say that it's impossible for you to reject somebody else out of hand as a collaborator, and then attribute that rejection to their holding the same beliefs as your actual collaborator -- or at least, i'd think it might have been possible before *this* collaboration happened. contradict me if i'm wrong...?

i remember Max Bean (who i dreamed about last night, along with you, with all three of us in our capacity as poets, of all things) once criticizing me for figuring out how to act based on building mental models of the way the universe was at that moment, and then acting according to my models' predictions. for some reason or another, i couldn't come up with the obvious response -- "isn't that what *everyone* does?" -- but i think, despite the legitimacy of that response, that he was basically right: that i was following these models even after my own feelings and hunches started pulling me in other directions, away even from any point of view the models would still be consistent with. i don't know -- i guess i'm trying to get at something i think is real important, but i'm not sure if i know how to word it precisely. like, i think it's mistaken for anyone to say that they've let their belief system overwhelm (supersede? preside over?) the rest of their person, even if they're proud that they supposedly have done so, and even if they're mad at others for *not* treating them as if they have (you know, when i was 15 i told my mom to catch me and upbraid me if she ever caught me "giving in" to romantic or sexual feelings -- and of course i was furious when she said no) -- because as a matter of fact that's *forgiveness*, and it's what your collaborator and you are both forgiving each other with.

but now, of course, i'm really *really* curious about this musical that you're writing. what is it about? is he writing the music with you writing the words? or, what...?

(and also -- pretty (not entirely!) unrelated to this post but i might as well say it here -- have you read the New York Times magazine article from this weekend about Turkey? because it's fascinating how much it seems to me to almost be a roman à clef about America today.)

also, tyromaven: what in odds bodkins is a post-human relationship?


Post a Comment

<< Home